Deconstructing the Essential Father
Louise B. Silverstein, Ph.D.and Carl F. Auerbach, Ph.D.
Neoconservative social scientists have claimed that fathers are essential
to positive child development, and that responsible fathering is most
likely to occur within the context of heterosexual marriage. This
perspective is generating a range of governmental initiatives designed to
provide social support preferences to fathers over mothers; and to
heterosexual married couples, rather than to alternative family forms.
The current article proposes that the neoconservative position is an
incorrect or oversimplified interpretation of empirical research. Using a
wide range of cross-species, cross-cultural, and social science research,
the authors argue that neither mothers nor fathers are essential to child
development, and that responsible fathering can occur within a variety of
family structures. The article concludes with alternative recommendations
for encouraging responsible fathering that do not discriminate against
mothers and diverse family forms.
In the past two decades there has been an explosion of research on fathers
(see Booth & Crouter, 1998; Lamb, 1997; and Phares, 1996 for recent
reviews). There is now a broad consensus that fathers are important
contributors to both normal and abnormal child outcomes. Infants and
toddlers can be as attached to fathers as they are to mothers. In addition,
even when fathers are not physically present, they may play an important
role in their children's psychological lives. Other important issues about
fathers and families remain controversial. For example, scholars continue
to debate the extent to which paternal involvement has increased over the
past 20 years (Pleck, 1997). Similarly, we are only beginning to study the
ways that fathering identities vary across subcultures (Auerbach,
Silverstein, & Zizi, 1997; Bowman & Forman, 1998; Roopnarine, Snell-White,
& Riegraf, 1993). Nor do we understand clearly the effects of divorce on
fathers and their children (Hetherington, Bridges, & Insabella, 1998).
Overall, this explosion of research on fathering has increased the
complexity of scholarly thinking about parenting and child development.
However, one group of social scientists (e. g. Biller & Kimpton, 1997;
Blankenhorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1996) has emerged that is offering a more
simplistic view of the role of fathers in families. These neoconservative
social scientists have replaced the earlier "essentializing" of mothers
(Bowlby, 1951) with a claim about the essential importance of fathers.
These authors have proposed that the roots of a wide range of social
problems (i. e. child poverty, urban decay, societal violence, teenage
pregnancy, and poor school performance) can be traced to the absence of
fathers in the lives of their children. Biller & Kimpton (1997, p. 147)
have even used the term "paternal deprivation" in a manner parallel to
Bowlby's concept of maternal deprivation. In our view, the essentialist
framework represents a dramatic
oversimplification of the complex relations between father presence and
We characterize this perspective as "essentialist" because it assumes that
the biologically different reproductive functions of men and women
automatically construct essential differences in parenting behaviors. The
essentialist perspective defines mothering and fathering as distinct social
roles that are not interchangeable. Marriage is seen as the social
institution within which responsible fathering and positive child
adjustment are most likely to occur. Fathers are understood as having a
unique and essential role to play in child development, especially for boys
who need a male role model in order to establish a masculine gender
identity (See Table 1 for a definition of the essentialist perspective).
Our research experience has led us to conceptualize fathering in a way that
is very different from the neoconservative perspective. Over the past six
years, we have studied the fathering identities of men who are actively
involved with their children (Auerbach et al., 1997; Auerbach &
Silverstein, 1997; Silverstein, 1996; Silverstein & Phares, 1996;
Silverstein & Quartironi, 1996; Silverstein, Auerbach, Grieco, Dunkel, in
press). To date, approximately 200 men from 10 different subcultures within
U. S. society have participated in this qualitative research. Our research
participants include: Haitian Christian fathers; Promise Keeper fathers;
gay fathers; Latino fathers; White, non-gay divorced, fathers; Modern
Orthodox Jewish fathers; Greek grandfathers.
|Gay fathers are not representative of any group of fathers. Because gays are less than 2% of the population, and gay fathers are less than 2% of gays, merely including just one gay father seriously distorts the study. |
In contrast to the neoconservative perspective, our data on gay fathering
couples have convinced us that neither a mother nor a father is essential.
Similarly, our research with divorced, never-married, and remarried fathers
has taught us that a wide variety of family structures can support positive
child outcomes. We have concluded that children need at least one
responsible, caretaking adult who has a positive emotional connection to
them, and with whom they have a consistent relationship. Because of the
emotional and practical stress involved in childrearing, a family structure
that includes more than one such adult is more likely to contribute to
positive child outcomes. Neither the sex of the adult(s), nor the
biological relationship to the child has emerged as a significant variable
in predicting positive development. One, none, or both of those adults
could be a father [or mother]. We have found that the stability of the
emotional connection and the predictability of the caretaking relationship
are the significant variables that predict positive child adjustment.
We agree with the neoconservative perspective that it is preferable for
responsible fathers [and mothers] to be actively involved with their
children. We share the concern that many men in U. S. society do not have a
feeling of emotional connection or a sense of responsibility toward their
children. However, we do not believe that the data support the conclusion
that fathers are essential to child well-being, and that heterosexual
marriage is the only social context in which responsible fathering is most
likely to occur.
Many social scientists believe that it is possible to draw a sharp
distinction between scientific fact and political values. From our
perspective, science is always structured by values, both in the research
questions that are generated, and in the interpretation of data. For
example, if one considers the heterosexual nuclear family to be the optimal
family structure for child development, then one is likely to design
research that looks for negative consequences associated with growing up in
a gay or lesbian parented family. If, in contrast, one assumes that gay and
lesbian parents can create a positive family context, then one is likely to
initiate research that investigates the strengths of children raised in
The essentialist theoretical framework has already generated a series of
social policy initiatives. For example, a 1998 Congressional seminar that
recommended a series of revisions to the tax code that would: reward
couples who marry; and end taxes altogether for married couples with three
or more children (Wetzstein, 1998). Other federal legislation has emerged
with a similar emphasis on the advantages of marriage. The1996 welfare
reform law begins by stating, "Marriage is the foundation of a successful
society" (Welfare Reform Act, 1996, p.110). Similarly, a housing project in
Hartford, Connecticut now provides economic supports to married couples,
and special opportunities for job training to men (but not to women) who
live with their families (LaRossa, 1997). In 1997, Louisiana passed a
Covenant Marriage Act (1997) that declared marriage a lifelong
relationship, and stipulated more stringent requirements for separation and
The social policy emerging out of the neoconservative framework is of grave
concern to us because it discriminates against cohabiting couples, single
mothers, and gay and lesbian parents. The purpose of the current article is
to present a body of empirical data that illustrates the inaccuracy of the
neoconservative argument. Throughout our discussion, we focus on the work
of Blankenhorn (1995) and Popenoe (1996) because they have been most
influential in structuring both public debate and social policy (Haygood,
1997; Samuelson, 1996).
Specific aspects of the neoconservative paradigm have been critiqued
elsewhere. For example, McLoyd (1998) has pointed out that families without
fathers are likely to be poor; and it is the negative effects of poverty,
rather than the absence of a father, that lead to negative developmental
outcomes. Similarly, Hetherington, et al. (1998) have made the point that
divorce does not always have negative consequences for children. However,
the neoconservative argument as a whole has not been deconstructed. Thus,
it tends to be absorbed in a monolithic fashion, buttressed by unconscious
gender ideology and traditional cultural values. Therefore, we think that a
systematic counterargument is necessary. We will cite research indicating
that parenting roles are interchangeable; that neither mothers nor fathers
are unique or essential; and that the significant variables in predicting
father involvement are economic, rather than marital. We will also offer an
alternative framework for encouraging responsible fathering.
We acknowledge that our reading of the scientific literature supports our
political agenda. Our goal is to generate public policy initiatives that
support men in their fathering role, without discriminating against women
and same-sex couples. We are also interested in encouraging public policy
that supports the legitimacy of diverse family structures, rather than
policy that privileges the two-parent, heterosexual, married family.
|In other words, families which contribute to social stability should not be taken seriously nor encouraged to thrive!|
We also realize that some of the research we cite to support our
perspective will turn out to be incorrect. Haraway (1989) pointed out that,
as research paradigms evolve to reflect diverse gender, ethnic, class, and
cultural perspectives, much of the established body of "scientific fact"
has turned out to be science fiction. Fishhoff (1990) identified two
options for psychologists in the public arena: helping the public define
their best interests, or manipulating the public to serve the interests of
policymakers. Thus, despite the fact that new data will inevitably prove
some aspects of our argument wrong, we hope that by stimulating scholarly
debate, we will contribute to the process by which the public more
accurately defines its best interests.
We begin by presenting cross-species and cross-cultural data that
contradict the claim that parenting behaviors are constructed by biological
differences. We will argue that parenting involves a series of caregiving
functions that have developed as adaptive strategies to specific
bioecological contexts. These caregiving functions can be performed by
parenting figures of either sex, whether or not they are biologically
related to the child.
|This is an admission that these "scholars" have not a clue about what it takes to raise socially stable children. Education, morals, discipline, ethics, spirituality cannot be so easily taught by just anybody--it has been known for centuries that they can be taught only by natural fathers. Why, suddenly, do these idiots not know this?|
We then review the research on marriage and divorce. This body of data
suggests that the poor psychological adjustment observed in some children
in divorcing families is caused by the disruption of the child's entire
life circumstances, rather than simply the dissolution of the marriage or
the absence of a father. We present data illustrating that emotionally
connected, actively nurturing, and responsible fathering can occur within a
variety of family structures.
Finally, we examine why the neoconservative perspective has been so widely
accepted within popular culture. We speculate that the appeal of
neoconservative ideology is related to two social trends: a genuine concern
about children; and a backlash against the gay rights and feminist
movements. We then offer social policy recommendations that support men in
their fathering role, without discriminating against women and same-sex
The Essentialist Position
Biological Sex Differences Construct Gender Differences in Parenting
One of the cornerstones of the essentialist position is that biological
differences in reproduction construct gender differences in parenting
behaviors. This theoretical framework proposes that the biological
experiences of pregnancy and lactation generate a strong, instinctual drive
in women to nurture. This perspective assumes that men do not have an
instinctual drive to nurture infants and children.
The neoconservative perspective relies heavily on evolutionary psychology
to support this argument. Evolutionary psychologists cite Trivers' (1972)
sexual conflict of interest hypothesis to explain sex differences in mating
strategies. Trivers' hypothesis states that, all other things being equal,
male mammals will maximize their evolutionary fitness by impregnating as
many females as possible, while investing very little in the rearing of any
individual offspring. Female mammals, in contrast, invest a great deal of
physiological energy in pregnancy and lactation, and thus are motivated to
invest a corresponding amount of time and energy in parenting.
Trivers' hypothesis accurately predicts behavior in many mammalian species.
However, Smuts & Gubernick (1992) have shown this hypothesis to be
inaccurate in predicting male involvement with infants among nonhuman
primates. Unfortunately, Smuts' and Gubernick's critique of the relevance
of Trivers' hypothesis for primate behavior has not been integrated into
evolutionary psychological theory.
Evolutionary psychology has recently gained prominence within psychology
and other social sciences (e. g. Archer, 1996; Buss, 1995). Because the
formal academic training of most social scientists does not include
cross-species research and evolutionary theory, many social scientists have
accepted the evolutionary psychologists' use of the Trivers hypothesis in
relation to primate behavior. However, many scholars within the natural
science community have been critical of evolutionary psychology (see for
example the 20 plus negative commentaries on Thornhill & Thornhill, 1992;
or Gould's, 1997 critique of evolutionary psychology).
Blankenhorn (1995) and Popenoe (1996), like many social scientists, have
incorrectly assumed that Trivers' theory is true of all primates, and
universally applicable across many different ecological contexts. However,
all other things have generally not been equal over the course of
evolutionary history. As bioecological contexts change, so do fathering
behaviors, especially among primate males.
Marmosets are an extreme example of primates who live in a bioecological
context that requires males to become primary caretakers (Smuts &
Gubernick, 1992). Because marmosets always have twins, female marmosets
must nurse two infants simultaneously. This generates nutritional pressure
for the mother to spend all of her time and energy feeding herself.
Therefore the father most commonly performs all parenting behaviors. Thus,
these animals do not conform to Trivers' hypothesis about the universality
of non-nurturing primate males. Marmoset males behave like "full-time
Marmosets illustrate how, within a particular bioecological context,
optimal child outcomes can be achieved with fathers as primary caretakers
and limited parenting involvement by mothers. Human examples of this
proposition include: single fathers (Greif & DeMaris, 1990); a two-parent
family in which the father is the primary caretaker (Pruett, 1989); or gay
father-headed families (Patterson & Chan, 1997).
Another cornerstone of the essentialist position is that the traditional
division of labor characteristic of Western, industrialized societies has
been true throughout human evolutionary history. Popenoe (1996. P. 167)
stated that our hominid ancestors "had a strong division of labor in which
males did most of the hunting and females did most of the gathering."
Zihlman (1997), in contrast, has pointed out that for most of our
evolutionary history, human societies were nomadic. This bioecological
context required both men and women to travel long distances, hunt, gather
food, and care for older children and other members of their community.
Similarly, in contemporary foraging and horticultural societies, women
perform the same range of tasks as men do, and add infant care to their
other responsibilities. Cross-cultural research illustrates that women are
capable of traveling long distances, carrying heavy loads, and
participating in hunting. Thus, the assertion that a rigid sexual division
of labor existed over most of our evolutionary history is not supported,
either by what is known about human society in prehistory, or by
contemporary preagricultural cultures.
The neoconservative perspective has also assumed that providing has been a
universal male role. Yet Nsamenang (1992) pointed out that in many West
African rural cultures, tradition places the sole responsibility for
providing food on mothers. Similarly, in hunting-gathering cultures, women
typically provide 60% of a family's nutritional requirements (Zihlman,
1997). Thus, in most preindustrial cultures fathers have never been sole
providers, and in some cultures they do not participate at all in the
The neoconservative perspective has also claimed that mothers are more
"natural" caregivers than fathers. Yet, more than a decade ago, Lamb (1987)
reported that research on mothers and fathers during the newborn period
yielded no differences in parenting behaviors. Neither mothers nor fathers
were "natural" parents. Because mothers tended to spend so much more time
with their infants, they became much more familiar with their biological
rhythms, visual and behavioral cues, etc. Therefore, when observations were
repeated after a year, mothers appeared as much more competent caregivers
than fathers. Many subsequent studies have shown that when fathers assume
the primary caretaking role, they are as competent and as "sensitive" as
mothers (Lamb, 1997).
In summary, the neoconservative position is simply wrong about the
biological basis of observed differences in parenting behaviors.
Cross-species and cross-cultural data indicate that fathering can vary from
a high level of involvement, to a total lack of involvement. Given these
wide variations in paternal behaviors, it is more accurate to conclude
that: both men and women have the same biological potential for nurturing;
and that the sexual division of labor in any culture is defined by the
requirements of that culture's specific bioecological context.
The neoconservative perspective has argued that, without a biological basis
for nurturing in men, the best way to insure that men will behave
responsibly toward their offspring is to provide a social structure in
which men can be assured of paternity, i. e. the traditional nuclear
Nonhuman primate behavior
This point of view is based on a corollary of Trivers' (1972) sexual
conflict of interest hypothesis, the paternity hypothesis. Trivers reasoned
that without paternity certainty, males would not risk investing time and
energy in another male's offspring, thereby decreasing their own
evolutionary fitness. However, Smuts and Gubernick (1992) have demonstrated
that Trivers' paternity hypothesis is not generally predictive of fathering
behavior among nonhuman primates. If paternity certainty were the most
significant variable, then males should show greater paternal involvement
in species where several females live with only one breeding male. In
species where several males and several females live together (and
therefore multiple mating opportunities make paternity uncertain), males
should have lower paternal involvement.
The paternity hypothesis does correctly predict male care of infants in
most monogamous species. In most monogamous mating pairs, male care is
high. However, the paternity hypothesis does not accurately predict male
care in other primate social groupings. With the exception of mountain
gorillas, males in one-male groups (where paternity is certain) show less
paternal involvement than males in multimale groups (where paternity is
Smuts and Gubernick found that the amount of time and energy males invest
in nurturing and protecting infants varies depending on the mutual benefits
which males and females have to offer each other within a particular
bioecological context. These authors offered an alternative hypothesis, the
"reciprocity hypothesis," to account for variations in male care of
infants. The reciprocity hypothesis predicts that male care of infants will
be low when either males or females have few benefits to exchange. The
probability of high male care of infants increases when females have
substantial benefits to offer males (e. g. when females can offer to mate
more frequently with specific males; or provide males with political
alliances that enhance their status within the male dominance hierarchy).
Smuts and Gubernick found that male care of infants is lower in one-male
groups because this system of reciprocal benefits does not exist. Each
female has no alternative except to mate with the single male, whether or
not he cares for her infants. Because she has no other mating
possibilities, she cannot offer preferential mating opportunities in
exchange for infant care. Similarly, in a one-male group, the breeding male
does not have to compete for a place within a male dominance hierarchy. He
is the only male in the group. Therefore, females cannot offer political
assistance to enhance his dominance ranking. Because females lack benefits
to offer males in exchange for infant care, male involvement, in contrast
to what would be predicted by the paternity hypothesis, is low in one-male
Overall, a very large body of animal research points to the importance of
an array of variables, which we refer to as bioecological context, in
determining parenting behaviors. Low levels of infant care do not
characterize all primate males. Nor is biological paternity the most
significant variable in increasing the probability of high male
involvement. Other feminist anthropologists and sociobiologists have
similarly deconstructed Trivers' theory (e. g. Gowaty, 1997; Hrdy, 1997).
In contrast to Trivers' emphasis on universal sex differences and the
relative fixity of behaviors, these feminist researchers have pointed to
the overlap of behaviors between the sexes, and the relative flexibility of
complex human behaviors. Unfortunately, this feminist scholarship has not
been integrated into most social science literature.
Human primate behavior
Smuts and Gubernick have made a strong case for the power of the
reciprocity hypothesis to predict male involvement among nonhuman primates.
However, does their hypothesis predict human primate behavior? We will
argue that the reciprocity hypothesis does predict male involvement among
In cultures where women have significant resources to offer men in exchange
for childcare, paternal involvement should be higher than in cultures where
women have fewer resources. In line with this prediction, paternal
involvement in the U. S., Sweden, and Australia is higher than in more
traditional cultures, such as Italy and Spain, where women's workforce
participation is less widespread (Blossfeld, 1995). Similarly, Haas (1993)
reported that a survey of more than 300 Swedish families indicated that
fathers participated more in child care if their partner made as much or
more money than they did.
Erikson and Gecas (1991) have provided examples of how paternal involvement
varies based on the benefits men have to exchange. These authors pointed
out that the least amount of father involvement in U. S. society has been
observed in two groups of fathers: poor, unmarried teenage fathers; and
upper-class fathers in traditional nuclear families. Teen dads in U. S.
society are often undereducated and underemployed. Therefore, they cannot
make a meaningful contribution to the economic security of their children.
Poor teen fathers do not have meaningful benefits to offer their child's
mother. As the reciprocity hypothesis would predict, these fathers are
often minimally involved in the lives of their children.
In upper-class families, in contrast, it is most often the wives who have
few benefits to exchange. The family's high income is the result of the
husband's earning capacity. The wife's additional economic contribution is
rarely meaningful to the family's economic security. Most of the wives do
not participate in paid employment. Thus, the upper class wives have few
benefits to offer in exchange for direct paternal involvement. Within this
context, the fathers in these families use their income to pay for
other-than-mother childcare, but do little active caregiving themselves.
The fathers with the highest level of active childcare involvement are in
dual-shift, working-class families. Pleck (1993) has estimated that fathers
in this family context are responsible for, on average, 30% of childcare.
Working class, dual shift families are the context in which mothers and
fathers are most evenly matched in terms of the resources they have to
exchange. Both parents' incomes are significant to family stability.
Because they work opposite shifts, involvement in childcare by the at-home
parent is necessary for child well-being. From the perspective of the
reciprocity hypothesis, the parity of resources between husband and wife
within this family structure generated the high level of paternal
Stier and Tienda (1993) have provided other data that support the link
between father involvement and economic benefits. Using interviews from
more than 800 resident and non-resident fathers living in poor
neighborhoods in Chicago, these authors examined the relations between
paternal support and several background variables. The researchers found
that the only significant predictors of which fathers would pay child
support were those that reflected the father's economic status. Fathers who
were currently employed were three times more likely to support their
nonresident children compared to fathers who were not working.
In summary, these data on human parenting behaviors conform to the
predictions of the reciprocity hypothesis. In social contexts where either
the father or mother has few benefits to exchange, paternal involvement is
low. When both fathers and mothers have benefits that contribute to family
wellbeing, paternal involvement is relatively high.
Thus, improving employment opportunities for women, as well as men, is
crucial to increasing father involvement. These findings suggest that in
our current cultural context, it is economics, not marriage, that
The Civilizing Effects of Marriage
The essentialist position has also proposed that marriage has a
"civilizing" effect on men. Popenoe, reflecting this point of view, has
stated that "...all successful societies have imposed social sanctions on
men...the most important of these is the institution of marriage" (p. 164).
Similarly, Blankenhorn (1995, p.223) declared that "marriage constitutes an
irreplaceable life support system for effective fatherhood."
Blankenhorn further asserted that marriage protects women and children from
domestic violence (1995, p. 34). He reported that, as the percentage of men
living within the confines of marriage has declined over the past two
decades, domestic violence has increased. However, a recent report on
intimate violence published by the U. S. Department of Justice (1998)
indicated that, as marriage has declined over the past two decades, so has
intimate violence. This report stated that murders of women by their
intimate partners decreased 40%, from 3,000 in 1976, to 1800 in 1996.
Similarly, non-lethal violence (sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and
simple assault), declined from 1.1 million reported incidents in 1993, to
840,000 in 1996 (U. S. Department of Justice, 1998).
Blankenhorn and Popenoe have also argued for the protective effect of
biological fatherhood within the context of marriage. Citing a study by
Daly & Wilson (1985), Blankenhorn claimed that children are more frequently
abused by stepfathers than by biological fathers. However, Sternberg (1997)
pointed out that Daly and Wilson specified only that the more frequently
abused children lived in households with stepfathers. They could not
specify whether the perpetrator of the abuse was the stepfather, the
biological mother, or another adult in the household. Malkin and Lamb
(1994), in an attempt to correct for this design flaw, included information
about the perpetrator's gender and relationship to the child. They found
that biological caretakers, in both stepfamilies and biological families,
were more likely to engage in serious physical abuse than stepparents.
Nonbiological caretakers, in contrast, committed minor abuse.
These findings are confirmed by the Third National Incidence Study of Child
Abuse and Neglect (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996). This study reported that the
majority (78%) of children who suffered maltreatment, both neglect and
abuse, were maltreated by a birth parent. Parent substitutes (foster,
adoptive, step) were responsible for the abuse in only 14% of reported
cases. In terms of sexual abuse, 46% of children were sexually abused by a
stranger. Birth parents were about as likely to be sexually abusive (29%)
as were parent-substitutes (25%). These statistics do not support the
neoconservative contention that stepfathers or mother's boyfriends abuse
children more frequently than biological fathers (and mothers).
In a comprehensive article reviewing the nature, causes, and consequences
of abuse, Emery and Laumann- Billings (1998) have identified multiple
variables that lead to abuse. These include: personality of the
perpetrator, such as low self-esteem or poor impulse control;
characteristics of the immediate family context, such as job loss; and
qualities of the broader ecological context, such as poverty or high levels
of violence in the community. Stepchildren, unplanned children, and
children in large families are all at greater risk for abuse. Thus, high
levels of child abuse are associated with a broad array of biopsychosocial
variables. In summary, we do not find any empirical support that marriage
enhances fathering, or that marriage "civilizes" men and protects children.
Fathers Make a Unique and Essential Contribution to Child Development
The neoconservative perspective has proposed that, if men can be induced to
caretake young children, their unique, masculine contribution significantly
improves the developmental outcomes for children. From the essentialist
perspective, "fatherhood privileges children...Conversely, the primary
consequences of fatherlessness are rising male violence and declining child
well-being and the underlying source of our most important social
problems..." (Blankenhorn, 1995, p. 25-26).
These claims represent an oversimplification of the data. On average,
children from divorced families have been shown to be at greater risk for a
range of problems than are children from nondivorced families. However, it
is also true that 75% of children from divorced families exhibit no
negative effects (see Hetherington, et al., 1998 for a review).
Furthermore, the size of the negative effect of divorce is considerably
reduced when the adjustment of children preceding divorce is controlled.
For many of these children, the problems attributed to divorce were
actually present prior to the divorce. In addition, divorce does not affect
all children negatively. Amato, Loomis, & Booth (1995) reported that,
although children from low-conflict marriages were stressed by divorce, the
adjustment of children in high-conflict marriages actually improved after
divorce. Overall, the research suggests that divorce does not irretrievably
harm the majority of children.
Hetherington, et al. (1998) have pointed out that divorce is not a single
event, but rather a cycle of negative events. The cycle begins with marital
conflict, followed by dissolution of the current family structure, and
culminates with the formation of separate households. In the majority of
families, at least one parent remarries, forming a new, blended stepfamily.
In addition, divorce occurs more frequently in second marriages,
reinitiating the disruptive cycle of loss and conflict. This cycle entails
economic stress, disrupted attachments, and often separation from the
family home and neighborhood.
In his deconstruction of Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis, Rutter
(1974) illustrated that the negative developmental outcomes observed in
institutionalized infants were caused by the disruption of the child's
entire life circumstances, rather than simply separation from mother.
Likewise, it seems more probable that the link between marital transitions
and negative developmental outcomes is due to the disruption in the entire
life circumstances of children, rather than simply to the absence of a father.
Blankenhorn's and Popenoe's reliance on the father-absence research
paradigm is surprising, since the limitations of this approach have been
documented by many researchers over the past two decades (see Phares, 1996
for a review). Father absence covaries with other relevant family
characteristics, i. e. the lack of a male income; the absence of a second
adult; and the lack of support from a second extended family system. McLoyd
(1998) has pointed out that, because single-mother families are
over-represented among poor families, it is difficult to differentiate the
effects of father absence from the effects of low income.
Another major limitation to this paradigm is that father absence is not a
monolithic variable. Qualitative research has shown that relationships
between "absent" fathers and their children can vary widely. Weil (1996)
studied 22 divorced fathers who were recruited from a self-help fathers'
rights group. These middle-class, suburban, mostly White fathers used a
variety of settings, e. g. school, day care, extended-family events, to
increase their interaction with their children above the limited contact
specified in their visitation arrangements. In another study, Way and
Stauber (1996) interviewed 45 urban adolescent girls about their
relationships with their fathers. Of the 26 girls who did not live with
their fathers, 7 reported weekly contact with them; 10 reported occasional
contact; while only 9 reported almost no contact. Thus, father involvement
exists on a continuum, whether or not fathers live with their children.
Fathers can be "absent" even when they reside with their children, and
"present" despite nonresident status.
The essentialist position also fails to acknowledge the potential costs of
father presence. Engle & Breaux (1998) have shown that some fathers'
consumption of family resources in terms of gambling, purchasing alcohol,
cigarettes, or other nonessential commodities, actually increased women's
workload and stress level.
The importance of a male role model
Another aspect of the neoconservative perspective is the argument that "key
parental tasks belong essentially and primarily to fathers" (Blankenhorn,
1995, p.67). Fathers are seen as essential role models for boys,
relationship models for girls, and "protectors" of their families (Popenoe,
1996, p. 77). However, there is a considerable body of empirical evidence
that contradicts these claims.
The essentialist perspective assumes that boys need a heterosexual male
parent in order to establish a masculine gender identity. Pleck (1995) has
demonstrated that empirical research does not support this assumption.
Similarly, a significant amount of research on the children of lesbian and
gay parents has shown that children raised by lesbian mothers (and gay
fathers) are as likely as children raised in a heterosexual, two-parent
family to achieve a heterosexual gender orientation (Patterson, 1995;
Patterson and Chan, 1997). Other aspects of personal development and social
relationships were also found to be within the normal range for children
raised in lesbian and gay families.
However, persistent, although inconsistent, findings suggest that the
negative impact of divorce is more significant for boys than girls. After
reviewing the divorce and remarriage research, Hetherington et al. (1998,
p. 178) concluded that "the presence of a father may have positive effects
on the well-being of boys." These authors also pointed out that the
research is not clear as to how father presence acts as a protective factor
for boys. Lytton and Romney (1991) in a meta-analysis of 172 studies found
very few significant differences in the ways that mothers and fathers
treated girls and boys. Similarly, Lamb (1997) concluded that "very little
about the gender of the parent seems to be distinctly important" (p. 10).
Thus, the relation between father presence and better developmental
outcomes for boys remains correlational, not causal.
We speculate that the larger cultural context of male dominance and
negative attitudes toward women may interfere with the ability of many
single mothers to establish an authoritative parenting style with male
children. Within patriarchal culture, boys know that when they become adult
men, they will be dominant to every woman, including their mother. This
cultural context, unmediated by a male presence, may undermine a single
mother's authority with her sons. Qualitative research is needed to explo
the subjective experiences of boys in single mother, single father, and
two-parent nuclear families in order to understand these persistent, but
Taken as a whole, the empirical research does not support the idea that
fathers make a unique and essential contribution to child development. From
our perspective, it is not the decline of marriage that is discouraging
responsible fathering. Rather, various social conditions inhibit involved
parenting by unmarried and divorced men. For example, unmarried teen
fathers typically have low levels of education and job training. Thus, they
lack the ability to contribute significantly to the economic security of
their offspring. Similarly, many divorced fathers cannot sustain a positive
emotional connection to their children after the legal system redefines
their role from parenting to visitation.
Social policy is needed that removes the impediments to paternal
involvement for never-married and divorced fathers. Rather than privileging
the institution of heterosexual marriage at the expense of other family
structures, it is essential to strengthen the father-child bond within all
family contexts, especially nonmarital contexts.
Change and the Change-back Reaction
If the essentialist paradigm is not supported by empirical data, why has it
been so widely accepted
it? We believe that the appeal of the essentialist position reflects a
reaction against the rapid changes
in family life that have taken place in the past three decades. Since the
1960's, family formation
strategies have changed dramatically in Western, industrialized cultures
(Blossfeld, 1995). The cultural norm of early and universal marriage has
been reversed. Fertility rates have declined overall, and age at the birth
of a first child has risen across all cohorts. More couples are choosing to
live together outside the context of marriage, and a first pregnancy more
frequently precedes, rather than follows marriage. Previously rare family
types, e. g. single-mothers-by-choice, dual career, and
gay/lesbian-parents are increasingly more common.
Industrialized cultures are in the process of changing from a context in
which child development could flourish with fathers as the sole or primary
provider, to a context in which two providers are now necessary in the vast
majority of families. In a survey of 1,502 U. S. families, 48% of married
women reported that they provided half or more of the family income
(Families and Work Institute, 1995). Given this commitment to breadwinning,
women can no longer shoulder the sole responsibility for raising children.
In this context of rapid change, the neoconservative position reflects a
widespread societal anxiety about "Who will raise the children?" Mothers
are no longer at home, and society has not embraced "other-than-mother"
care. The U. S., in contrast to other western countries, has not yet
developed a social policy agenda designed to help women and men integrate
their work and family responsibilities. Thus, many people believe that a
return to the traditional nuclear family structure with its gendered
division of labor would be preferable to large numbers of neglected and
In addition to an authentic concern about the welfare of children, we
believe that the appeal of the "essential father" also reflects a backlash
against the gay rights and feminist movements. In the past two decades, the
employment of women has dramatically increased, while the employment of men
has declined significantly (Engle & Breaux, 1998). Many more women than in
past historical periods can now choose to leave unsatisfactory marriages or
to have children on their own, outside of the context of a traditional
marriage. Two of three divorces are now initiated by women (Rice, 1994).
Just as the feminist movement created new opportunities for women, the gay
rights movement has encouraged many more gay men and lesbians to live an
openly homosexual lifestyle. Many gay men and women who would previously
have entered into a heterosexual marriage in order to have children, now
see a gay family structure as a viable alternative for raising children.
Parallel to these changes, is the tendency emerging among heterosexual
couples to live together and delay marriage until after a first pregnancy
(Blossfeld, 1995). Thus, the distinctions between marital and cohabiting
unions, and between marital and non-marital childbearing are losing their
These social changes require heterosexual men to relinquish certain aspects
of power and privilege that they enjoyed in the context of the traditional
nuclear family. Most men no longer have sole economic power over their
families. Similarly, most men must accept some degree of responsibility for
childcare and household tasks. The majority of heterosexual men no longer
have full-time wives to buffer the stress of balancing work and family
roles. Within this new context of power sharing and role sharing,
heterosexual men have been moved from the center to the margins of many
versions of family life. In our view, the societal debate about gender
differences in parenting is, in part, a reaction to this loss of male power
and privilege. We see the argument that fathers are essential as an attempt
to reinstate male dominance by restoring the dominance of the traditional
nuclear family with its contrasting masculine and feminine gender roles.
Family systems theory (Kerr & Bowen, 1988) has proposed that natural
systems (such as families and societies) fluctuate between periods of
homeostasis and periods of disequilibrium. When change occurs, elements
within the system react with a pressure to change the system back to its
prior state of homeostasis. This cycle is called change and the change-back
reaction. The current social context of multiple and diverse family
structures, with their interchangeable parenting roles and more egalitarian
distribution of power, challenges the dominant cultural ideology. From our
perspective, the emphasis on the essential importance of fathers and
heterosexual marriage represents a change-back reaction. It is an attempt
to reassert the cultural hegemony of traditional values such as:
heterocentrism; Judeo-Christian marriage; and male power and privilege.
An Alternative Blueprint for Social Change
We have argued that the neoconservative paradigm is based on an
oversimplification of empirical research. Thus we believe that the social
policy emanating from this perspective cannot ultimately be successful in
encouraging responsible fathering. Pressuring men and women to enter into
or maintain unsatisfactory marriages is unlikely to enhance paternal
involvement. We will now present an alternative framework that we believe
more accurately fits the data. Our framework has three main
recommendations: reconstructing traditional masculinity ideology;
restructuring societal institutions; and providing a comprehensive program
of governmental subsidies to all families with children.
Because we believe that ideology defines both social policy and individual
behavior, our first recommendation speaks to the necessity of
reconstructing cultural ideology about gender roles. The neoconservative
perspective also wants to reconnect fatherhood and masculinity. Blankenhorn
(1995, p. 223) has stated that "being a real man [must come to mean] being
a good father." However, within the essentialist framework, responsible
fathering is inextricably intertwined with marriage. Our goal, in contrast,
is to create an ideology that defines the father-child bond as independent
of the father-mother relationship.
If the father-child bond were accorded the same importance as the
mother-child bond, then young boys would be socialized to assume equal
responsibility for the care and nurturing of their children. A father's
relationship with his children could then develop and remain independent of
his relationship with the child's mother. This ideological shift would
encourage the development of diverse models of responsible fatherhood.
Roopnarine, Snell-White, & Riegraf (1993) described a group of African
Caribbean fathers living in a variety of relationship contexts, e. g.
marital, common law, and "friending," who behaved responsibly to both
biological and step-children. These data indicate that responsible
fathering need not be dependent on a marital relationship.
We believe that this change in cultural gender ideology would be effective
in maintaining a high level of paternal involvement for resident as well as
nonresident fathers. Divorce and nonmarital childbirth would then be less
likely to be characterized by father absence, since cultural norms would
prescribe that never-married and divorced fathers remain actively involved
with their children.
This ideological enhancement of the father-child bond is also necessary for
restructuring societal institutions so that father involvement is
encouraged, rather than inhibited. Maintaining the sacred status of the
mother-child dyad continues the myth of separate, i. e. gendered, spheres
of life. The cultural assumption of separate spheres links
public/work/masculine and private/family/feminine. This cultural linking of
family and feminine is reflected in the assumption that women, but not men,
will decrease their involvement in paid work in order to balance the
competing demands of work and family life.
Pleck (1993) found that men are reluctant to take advantage of
family-supportive policies because they fear that they will be perceived as
uncommitted to their job, or unmasculine. Until workplace norms acknowledge
that men have equivalent responsibility for childcare, it is unlikely that
most men will feel comfortable restructuring their commitment to work in a
manner that allows more family involvement.
In the context of poor, ethnic minority families, it is often fathers,
rather than mothers who have no resources to exchange. More than a decade
ago, Wilson (1987) pointed out that institutionalized racism caused
minority men to be marginalized, first from the labor market, and then from
the family. Governmental policy must acknowledge the link between father
absence and job absence. Men who can contribute substantially to family
finances are more likely to get married and to assume financial
responsibility for their children.
Our final recommendation relates to an overall governmental family policy.
The U. S. cultural ideology of rugged individualism continues to assume
that individual families can and should balance the stress of work and
family without the benefits of large-scale government supports. The U. S.
remains one of the few industrialized countries without a comprehensive
family policy that provides: paid parental leave, governmentally financed
day care, and economic subsidies for all families with children. Without
these benefits, the responsibility for childcare continues to fall largely
Because women continue to bear the bulk of the responsibility for the
welfare of children, the goal of economic equality remains elusive.
Providing families with governmental supports would not only alleviate many
of the stresses of working families, it would also free women from the
unequal burden of making major accommodations in their involvement in paid
work. This shift would then decrease gender inequalities in the workplace,
provide women with more resources to exchange, and thus contribute to
higher paternal involvement.
How can these societal changes be achieved? Haas (1993) pointed to the high
participation by women in politics as one of the social forces that has
been significant in establishing progressive family policy in Sweden. Since
the early 1970s, women have held one-third or more of the seats in
parliament, compared to 12% in the 1996 U. S. Congress (The World Almanac,
1998). The example of Swedish politics suggests that until more women
become active in government, many of the governmental supports needed to
help families may not be forthcoming.
We have tried to illustrate how the essentialist position does not
accurately reflect relevant empirical research. We have provided an
alternative explanation of the research, and generated recommendations for
social policy supports to mothers and fathers that we believe will more
effectively achieve the goal of reconnecting fathers and children. We hope
that this article will generate scholarly debate within the psychological
community, and encourage a critical analysis of the essentialist paradigm.